The Battle of Chancellorsville
Major General Ambrose E. Burnside lasted only a single campaign as head of the Army of the Potomac. His abject failure at Fredericksburg, followed by further fumbling during January's "Mud March," convinced President Abraham Lincoln to make another change in leadership. On January 26, 1863, he appointed Major General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker as the army’s new commander. The 48-year-old Massachusetts native, known for his exceptional administrative skills and wildly ambitious military tactics, immediately instituted several changes to boost his soldiers’ morale. Among these revisions were improved sanitation and medical care, an incentivized furlough system, and the introduction of corps badges, which encouraged comradery and shared identity among the soldiers. Within weeks, Hooker's restored the vigor and vitality of his troops, whom he proudly proclaimed "the finest army on the planet."
THE CHANCELLORSVILLE CAMPAIGN
"My plans are perfect, and when I start to carry them out may God have mercy on General Lee, for I will
— Major General Joseph Hooker
Hooker coordinated an ingenious spring offensive designed to trap Lee’s vulnerable Army of Northern Virginia. Major General George Stoneman and his ten thousand cavalrymen would initiate the campaign by raiding rebel communication and supply lines around Richmond. During this disruptive diversion, Hooker would divide his army into two contingents. Major General John Sedgwick, commanding the I and VI Corps at Falmouth, would threaten a river crossing at Fredericksburg while Hooker’s main body crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers several miles beyond the Confederate left flank. This double envelopment strategy would force Lee to either fight unfavorably on multiple fronts or abandon his Fredericksburg defenses. Hooker hoped for the latter, as it would place the disadvantaged Confederate army between his numerically superior infantry and fleet-footed cavalry.
Stoneman’s cavalry departed the Federal encampments on April 13, 1863, reaching Kelly’s Ford the following day. However, heavy rains flooded the waterways and rendered the roads impassable, delaying their operations by two weeks. Hooker was informed of Stoneman’s setback but chose to continue his campaign anyway. Between April 27 – 30, seventy-five thousand Federal soldiers crossed south of the Rappahannock without challenge from Confederate pickets. The Union ranks teemed with encouragement and triumph, fervent to push onwards towards Fredericksburg; however, General Hooker issued orders to halt and establish headquarters at Chancellorsville—a large brick estate at the intersection of Orange Turnpike, Orange Plank Road, and River Road. This critical decision was disconcerting for many of Hooker’s field commanders, who sought to maintain the campaign’s impetus and urgency.
THE BATTLE OF CHANCELLORSVILLE: MAY 1 – 6, 1863
“The scene as I marched through the burning woods…was harrowing—the dead of both sides enveloped in flames, the appealing cries of helpless, the heavy pall of stifling sulphurous smoke…made it a perfect hell on earth. I do not wish to witness anything like it again.”
— Confederate General James Lane
General Lee’s command numbered sixty thousand men when he was informed of the developing Union offensive—two Confederate divisions (fifteen thousand soldiers) under General James Longstreet were foraging for supplies in southeast Virginia at the time. Despite being outnumbered more than two-to-one, Lee audaciously decided to confront Hooker head-on. He sent Major General Richard H. Anderson’s advance column towards the Spotsylvania Wilderness—a tangled acreage of second-growth forests and thorny underbrush surrounding Chancellorsville—hoping to contain Hooker within its wooded thickets and negate his advantageous manpower. Lee retained Major General Jubal Early and nine thousand troops at Fredericksburg to defend the city from Sedgwick’s force while the balance of the Confederate army marched west to support Anderson’s front.
Anderson’s division mustered with Generals William Mahone and Carnot Posey around midnight and began to fortify a prominent ridge overlooking Zoan Church, just east of the Wilderness. Major General Lafayette McLaws’ division reinforced the Confederate garrison several hours later, amassing nearly forty thousand troops along the defensive line.
General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson arrived at Zoan Church the following morning and assembled his entrenched Confederate command for an offensive operation. He ordered McLaws and Mahone to march west along Orange Turnpike towards Chancellorsville while Anderson carried the adjacent Plank Road. Around the same time, Hooker resumed his eastward campaign. Two divisions of Major General George Meade’s V Corps marched on River Road, three brigades under Major General George Sykes took Orange Turnpike, and the XI and XII Corps—respectively commanded by Generals Oliver O. Howard and Henry Slocum—advanced along the Plank Road. The Union II and III Corps remained in reserve at United States Ford.
The Battle of Chancellorsville opened at 11:20 a.m., when Slocum’s XII Corps collided with Anderson’s division on Plank Road. Sharp fighting soon erupted on all three thoroughfares. Jackson pressed the advancing blue-clad troops with an unexpected ferocity that surprised many in Union command. After three hours of contentious combat, Hooker ordered his men to fall back and establish a defensive perimeter around Chancellorsville. Hooker’s subordinates were understandably frustrated by the disengagement. While initial encounters were indeed intense, Confederate forces—faced with the Union army’s overwhelming numerical advantage—were slowly receding. Slocum and Meade were within striking distance of Zoan Church when Hooker’s retrograde directive was handed down. Instead of capturing Zoan’s strategic ridgeline, the Union army confined itself within the Wilderness, much to Lee’s delight.
That evening, Generals Lee and Jackson bivouacked at the intersection of Orange Plank and Furnace roads to discuss their battle strategy against the superior Union army, which held strong positions along a six-mile front. Prior reconnaissance missions had failed to identify any obvious openings; however, around midnight, Lee’s cavalry chief, General J.E.B. Stuart, reported that the Union right flank was “hanging in the air”—videlicet resting on no vallations and vulnerable to attack. With this new information, the two generals devised arguably the most daring maneuver of the American Civil War. Stonewall’s Corps, consisting of 28,000 men, would navigate twelve miles of backcountry roads around the Union right flank while Lee’s remaining 14,000 troops preoccupied Hooker and his 70,000 Federal soldiers. Once in position, Jackson would deliver a pulverizing blow against the exposed Union line. By splintering the Army of Northern Virginia a second time, Lee amplified his numerical disadvantage. Should Hooker discover his intentions, the Army of the Potomac could easily overwhelm the piecemealed Confederates; but as Lee conceded, turning the Union right was his army’s best opportunity for a decisive victory.
The Union right flank was held by Howard’s XI Corps, a relatively new fighting unit comprised mostly of Central European immigrants. Hooker had no intention of utilizing these green troops in battle, but did not dismiss the possibility of Confederate attack. Early on May 2, Hooker summoned Major General John F. Reynolds’s I Corps from Fredericksburg to reinforce Howard and anchor his position on the Rapidan River. The orders were sent around 2 a.m., but problems with telecommunications delayed the message until sunrise, compelling Reynolds to perform a risky, daytime countermarch.
Jackson initiated his grand flanking maneuver around seven o’clock. Not nearly one mile into the trek, his movements were observed by Federal scouts atop Hazel Grove—an elevated plateau at the center of the Hooker’s line. Brigadier General David B. Birney ordered his artillery to open fire on the Confederate column; however, this did little to impede Jackson’s progress. General Hooker was informed of Birney’s engagement and observed the action. The Confederates’ southerly movements indicated retreat, but the Union commander held his suspicions. He sent a dispatch to General Howard, warning him of the enemy’s approach, and ordered Major General Daniel E. Sickles’ III Corps to harass Lee’s “retreating” army.
At 2 p.m., elements of the III Corps engaged Jackson’s rearguard, the 23rd Georgia Infantry, along an unfinished railroad cut near Catharine Furnace. Some 20,000 Union soldiers descended upon the small rebel detachment, nearly all of whom were killed or captured after three hours of fighting. However, this delaying action effectively isolated the XI Corps from nearby support as Jackson’s troops defiantly continued their march. Union pickets continually warned Howard of increased Confederate activity throughout the afternoon, but the naïve general ignored the reports, dismissing them as “frightened exaggerations of alarmists and cowards.”
The bulk of Jackson’s column positioned themselves beyond the Union right flank around 5:30 p.m. Seven thousand troops under General A.P. Hill had yet to arrive, but with daylight dwindling, Jackson motioned his men forward. A bugle blared from the darkened woods followed by an ominous rebel yell. Waves of Confederates emerged from the brush, astonishing the Union troops who were just sitting down for supper. Many of Howard’s men broke rank and fled as the rebels swarmed their ranks; their rifles unloaded and stacked in unsuspecting fashion. Major General Carl Schurz and artillery Captain Hubert Dilger offered token resistance, but their lines soon succumbed to the grey onslaught. Within an hour, the XI Corps suffered nearly 2,500 casualties, about one-quarter of its strength. The shattered remnants of Howard’s command fled in disarray towards Fairview, a small farm near Hooker’s headquarters two miles away. The humiliating retreat—prefigured by misinterpreted observations and General Howard’s dismissive inactivity—derisively excoriated the XI Corps’ reputation, earning them the nickname “Flying Dutchmen.”
Sunset and regimental entropy forced Jackson to halt his advance around 7:15 p.m. As Confederate officers tried to reassemble their commands, Jackson summoned Hill to the front and discussed plans to renew the offensive that evening. Stonewall hoped to sweep around the Federal rear, blocking Hooker from his escape routes and effectively trapping the Army of the Potomac.
Around 9:15 p.m., Jackson and his staff scouted the Federal positions. While returning from their reconnaissance, Confederate pickets mistook the riders as Union. Colonel John D. Barry, commander of the 18th North Carolina Infantry, ordered his men to fire. Three Confederate officers were killed and several more wounded, including Jackson, who was shot twice in the left arm and once in the right hand. Mortified rebel soldiers quickly assembled to assist their wounded general; however, their friendly fire had inadvertently tipped off Federal artillerymen who proceeded to pummel the landscape, wounding A.P. Hill in the process. Jackson was eventually admitted to a field hospital at Wilderness Tavern, where 27-year-old Dr. Hunter McGuire amputated his left arm.
At 11 p.m., General Sickles organized 3,000 Union soldiers to retake the Orange Plank Road. They collided with General James Lane’s North Carolina brigade underneath the shadowed canopies of the midnight moon. Artillery shells indiscriminately ripped through the timbers creating a smoky forest of chaos while Slocum’s XII Corps, unaware of Sickles’ attack, erroneously fired into friendly troops. Sickles called off the attack and fell back to Hazel Grove.
Jackson’s flank attack had staggered the Union army, but Hooker still maintained the advantage. Roughly 76,000 Federals faced 43,000 Confederates on the Chancellorsville front. Union forces also held the high ground around Hazel Grove, which disjointed the Confederate army. Lee understood the paramount necessity of reconnecting his army. He and General Stuart prepared to launch an all-out assault against the Union center at daybreak; however, as the Southerners approached Hazel Grove, they discovered Federal troops retiring in orderly fashion. General Hooker had ordered Sickles to evacuate his position and fall back to Fairview earlier that morning, heedlessly yielding the high ground to the Confederacy.
Stuart, who was acting commander of Jackson’s Corps, placed thirty artillery pieces atop Hazel Grove and proceeded to pummel Fairview at 5:30 a.m. Lee simultaneously launched massive assaults against the Federal earthworks surrounding Chancellorsville. Waves of grey crashed against the well-entrenched Union positions, all resulting in bloody repulse. While General Hooker watched the ferocious battle unfold from Chancellorsville’s piazza, an artillery shell struck the pillar next to him, rendering the Union commander unconscious for nearly an hour. Hooker eventually awakened, groggy and confused, but refused to relinquish his military authority to Major General Darius Couch, his second-in-command. The temporary lapse of sound military leadership proved costly as Federal defenders ran dangerously low on ammunition. Faced with relentless rebel assaults, the Union army withdrew north of Chancellorsville around eleven o’clock. Thousands of triumphant Confederate soldiers stormed the vacant fields around the Chancellor mansion, now consumed by flames.
THE SECOND BATTLE OF FREDERICKSBURG: MAY 3, 1863
Hooker’s original plan called for Major General John Sedgwick to threaten a river crossing at Fredericksburg to distract Lee from the main Union maneuver. Now that a full-fledged battle had developed, the need for deceit was no more. Following the relocation of Reynolds’s I Corps, Hooker ordered Sedgwick to capture Fredericksburg with his remaining command—the VI Corps and Brigadier General John Gibbon’s division of the II Corps—roughly 27,000 men.
On the morning of May 3, Sedgwick crossed the Rappahannock and launched a series of unsuccessful assaults against Marye’s Heights, occupied by Barksdale’s Mississippians and General Harry T. Hays’ Louisiana Brigade. Union casualties racked up at a hauntingly familiar pace akin to the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg five months prior. While under a temporary flag of truce, Union stretcher bearers observed thin manpower on Barksdale’s right flank. They informed Sedgwick, who promptly launched a third attack against the infamous stone wall, utilizing his entire VI Corp’s strength. The Federals successfully overran the Confederate position. Barksdale retreated to Lee’s Hill, where he attempted to mount a counterattack, but was again forced to retreat further south.
The Second Battle of Fredericksburg resulted in 1,100 Union and 700 Confederate casualties. Sedgwick wanted to pursue Early, but was compelled to pressure Lee per Hooker’s orders. Sedgwick retained Gibbon’s division in Fredericksburg while the rest of his command marched west towards Chancellorsville.
THE BATTLE OF SALEM CHURCH: MAY 3-4, 1863
News of Early’s retreat reached Confederate command around midday. General Lee—confident that Hooker would maintain a futile defensive strategy—placed J.E.B. Stuart in command of Southern forces at Chancellorsville while he, McLaws, and Anderson rallied east to confront Sedgwick.
Brigadier General Cadmus Wilcox—whose Alabaman brigade arrived too late to support Early’s fight at Fredericksburg—deployed his men along Plank Road and spent the next several hours delaying Sedgwick’s advance. At Salem Church, reinforcements from Chancellorsville arrived to support Wilcox, increasing the Confederacy’s strength to ten thousand men. At 5:30 p.m., Union General William T. Brooks assailed Salem Church. Confederate sharpshooters and artillery placements wreaked havoc on the advancing Federals. Blind determination fueled Sedgwick’s attempts to breach the rebel line, all of which failed miserably. Nightfall ended the day’s contest, nullifying the Union earlier successes. Sedgwick withdrew to the Rappahannock during the night.
The next day, Lee dispatched Generals Early and McLaws to cooperate in a joint attack against the reeling Union army. Early’s men, approaching from the south, recaptured Marye’s Heights shortly after 7 a.m., then turned west towards Sedgwick’s main line. For the remainder of the morning, Early launched a series of uncoordinated attacks that failed to gain any ground. Lee arrived later in the day with Anderson’s division, increasing the Confederate strength to 21,000 men. But despite facing Sedgwick’s force from three directions, the Confederates failed to organize a coordinated attack. McLaws shied away from battle, believing his troops were not strong enough to execute such a bold counteroffensive, and Anderson’s men bumbled about getting into position.
By mid-afternoon, Sedgwick held a strong defensive position at Bank’s Ford. Brief fighting took place but the Union line held strong. After dark, Sedgwick sent Hooker a message recommending a retreat across the river. The request was approved at 1 a.m., and within three hours, the Union army was safe on the opposite bank. Chancellorsville’s easternmost action resulted in 3,000 Confederate casualties while Sedgwick lost 4,600 men—the highest casualty count for a single Union corps during the entire campaign.
ENTRENCHMENT AND RETREAT
“The fierce soldiers…all seemed possessed with a common impulse. One long, unbroken cheer, in which the
feeble cry of those who lay helpless on the earth blended with the strong voices of those who still fought, rose high above the roar of battle, and hailed the presence of the victorious chief.”
— Major Charles Marshall, Aide-de-Camp to General Robert E. Lee
After suffering significant setbacks on May 3, Hooker’s army firmly entrenched itself north of Chancellorsville. On the evening of May 5, Hooker held a council of war. While his corps commanders wanted to continue the offensive, Hooker—dejected by Sedgwick’s retreat—felt that he was out of options to save the campaign. The Union commander sulkily initiated the retreat on May 6.
Hooker’s unprecedented defeat was precipitated by gross overestimation and irresolution—deleterious effects of shattered confidence and inflated bravado. In the battle’s aftermath, the vainglorious commander was quick to displace blame and his lack of accountability propagated dissentious relationships with subordinate officers and Washington officials. Hooker eventually resigned his command on June 28, 1863, and was replaced by Major General George Meade.
At its conclusion, the Battle of Chancellorsville was the bloodiest conflict in American history with 30,800 combined casualties. The Confederate triumph, often remembered as “Lee’s greatest victory,” is problematic when considering the tolls inflicted upon his army. Although Hooker suffered 17,000 casualties, they accounted for only 13% of his available fighting force. Lee’s losses totaled 22% of his army, men difficult to replace. The most notable and unfortunate casualty was General Stonewall Jackson. After having his left arm amputated, Jackson contracted pneumonia and ultimately succumbed to the disease on May 10, 1863, creating a vacancy Lee could never completely satisfy.
The ferocity surrounding Chancellorsville purportedly inspired author Stephen Crane to write his award-winning novel Red Badge of Courage (1895). Crane—who was born after the Civil War—developed his realistic wartime narrations from veterans of the 124th New York Volunteers, the “Orange Blossoms,” who fought in the battle.
CHANCELLORSVILLE DRIVING TOUR
Chancellorsville’s ten-stop driving tour begins at its associated Visitor Center, where museum-quality exhibits and a 22-minute film chronicle the campaign. Outside the building is the Jackson Wounding Trail, which recounts Stonewall’s final moments in the field. Two monuments commemorate the fallen Confederate leader. The first, more modest memorial was placed sometime between 1876 and 1885 by several of Jackson’s former staff officers. The larger monolith was erected in June 1888 and unveiled to a crowd exceeding five thousand spectators.
The second stop on the tour is the Bullock House Site—Hooker’s final defensive line following the intense May 3 fighting. Further down Ely’s Ford Road are the Chancellor House ruins. Originally constructed in 1816, the mansion belonged to Frances “Fannie” Chancellor and her seven children at the time of the Civil War. The family remained in their home during Federal occupation, but were forced to evacuate when an artillery shell set the structure ablaze. The house was rebuilt in 1872, only to burn again in 1927.
Stop Four on the tour marks McLaws’ Line, where Confederate skirmishers successfully diverted Hooker’s army away from Stonewall Jackson’s flanking maneuver on May 2. A one-mile hiking trail traverses this area of fighting around Nine Mile Run. The fifth point of interest is the Lee-Jackson Bivouac—located at the intersection of Furnace and Plank Roads—where the two senior Confederate generals strategized their daring flank attack.
The ruins of Catharine Furnace accentuate Stop Number Six. First opened in 1837, the industrial complex contributed to the Confederacy’s wartime need for iron. The road that passes by the ironworks was utilized by Jackson during his May 2 maneuvers. Union cavalrymen under George A. Custer destroyed the compound in 1864, but it was quickly rebuilt and produced pig iron until the end of the war. Today, only Catharine’s stone furnace stack remains.
Stop seven features the earthworks of Slocum’s XII Corps, who held this line against punishing frontal attacks on May 3. Though a formidable position, low ammunition compelled Slocum’s retreat. The eighth tour stop marks where Jackson launched his flank attack against Howard’s XI Corps.
Hazel Grove commands Stop Number Nine. While Federal forces initially held this strategic high ground early in the battle, General Hooker evacuated the position following Jackson’s rout of the XI Corps. Confederate artillerymen swarmed the location early on May 3 and proceeded to shell the Union guns at Fairview. Hazel Grove was also the staging ground for some of the Civil War’s most intensive fighting. Confederate foot soldiers organized themselves below the plateau and hammered into the Union center held by Sickles’ III Corps. Within five hours, the two armies sustained over 17,500 casualties.
The final stop on the Chancellorsville tour is Fairview. Dozens of lunettes mark its landscape—tangible evidence of the battle’s vicious artillery exchanges. After the fighting on May 3, Confederate soldiers gathered the Union wounded and brought them to Fairview to receive medical treatment. Union surgeons arrived May 5 and performed an average of four amputations per hour, though many casualties were left exposed to the elements for over a week. Scores succumbed to their wounds. Union ambulances transported the remaining survivors to hospitals across the Rappahannock on May 12.
The Battle of Chancellorsville rendered Hooker’s once-promising campaign as a destructive failure that disgracefully squandered a critical opportunity to vanquish the Army of Northern Virginia. The preponderant Federal forces were outmaneuvered and outmatched by Robert E. Lee’s resolve and tactical cunning. The victory at Chancellorsville emboldened Confederate military leadership and inspired an offensive that would climax at Gettysburg—the high-water mark of the Eastern Theater. However, the marred landscape of Spotsylvania County had little time to heal as conflict returned in May 1864, delivering a level of savagery and bloodshed that morbidly eclipsed previous campaigns.
Visit the National Park Service, American Battlefield Trust, Stone Sentinels, History, and HistoryNet for more information about Chancellorsville Battlefield
Read the following scholastic publications to learn more about the battle:
Furgurson, Ernest B. Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave. Vintage Books, 1993.
Gallagher, Gary W. Chancellorsville: The Battle and Its Aftermath. University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
Hungerford, Harold R. “‘That Was at Chancellorsville’: The Factual Framework of The Red Badge of Courage.” American Literature 34, no. 4 (1963): 520–31.
Mackowski, Chris. White, Kristopher D. Chancellorsville's Forgotten Front: The Battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church, May 3, 1863. Savas Beatie, 2013.
Stackpole, Edward J. Chancellorsville: Lee's Greatest Battle. Stackpole Books, 1988.
White, Kristopher D. Mackowski, Christopher. That Furious Struggle: Chancellorsville and the High Tide of the Confederacy, May 1-4, 1863. Savas Beatie, 2014.